Badges?

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”
– Gold Hat, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Once again the talk of agile certification rears its ugly head, this time in the form of merit badges.

As someone who has interviewed and/or phone-screened hundreds of candidates, I understand the motivation. One lame recruiting firm had me talk to about a dozen candidates in live, speed-dating form (~20 minutes each) plus another ten or so phone screens. We were looking for a technical agile coach who could pair and help developers with TDDing C++ code. Out of the 20+ candidates, only a couple were worthy of more consideration, and ultimately they too proved to be not up to the task. The rest? “I haven’t used C++ in 10 years.” Or, “I ran some unit tests once.” Or, “Yeah, C++ is on my resume, but I have zero interest in working with it again.” Or, one of my favorites, “Did you want me to show you my TDDs?”

Turns out whoever wrote the requisition had asked for the wrong thing. Their laundry list was lengthy, several sentences worth, and didn’t get to the essence of what we really needed. I reworded it. “Seeking agile coach to pair and teach developers TDD in a C++ environment” was about all it said. World of difference. Out of the (much smaller) handful of applicants we subsequently received, we could have hired just about any one of them. Don’t ask for more than you really need.

I would never consider discarding developer applicants due to lack of certification–whether that certification be SCJP, ScrumMaster(tm), Badge o’ Agile Merit (BAM!), or Bachelor of Science (yes, university degrees are simply an advanced and entrenched form of certification). I’ve never found a certification to be The Great Differentiator. I’ve encountered enough certified individuals who were complete wastes of time, and enough brilliant individuals who others might have passed over due to their lack of certification.

The premise is that certification would save us money in hiring developers. It might save a small amount of money, but I contend that it’s really only worthwhile, as Tom DeMarco says, for the certifiers.

I can eliminate at least 90% of the chaff by asking for the right thing. And, from the rest, within five minutes or so, I have a very good notion as to whether someone is suitable as an agile developer. This isn’t an advanced skill. Sure, you need to have done enough agile to spot the phonies, but most people who’ve been on a good agile team for at least a year or so have this experience. If you don’t have any such individuals with solid agile experience, then you should seek out a reputable firm who can talk agile, such as Improving Enterprises in Dallas, and seed your initial team with a couple people who will truly make the difference.

There is a huge cost in a revenue-driven certification scheme for everyone who is not a certifier. For those of us who take to agile on our own, and are already passionate about it, it is little more than a very expensive tax to us, and insulting to boot. For those who want to learn, there are far better ways than taking classes. Yes, some of the proposed schemes suggest more creative elements, such as conference attendance, but none of these demonstrate that someone’s worthy of hiring. They only demonstrate that someone has spent a good amount of money and time on “something.”

About the only real way to know whether or not to hire someone is to have worked with them for a good amount of time. Some of the proposed schemes center around this notion of a trust circle, which might work, but it looks like there would be cost still involved.

(I did propose a scheme which would require already-certified developers to pair a certain amount of hours annually with the would-be certified, as a pro-bono service. This would allow the ability to become certified with an investment in time only, not money. No bites yet–my cynical nature reinforcing my notion that the certifiers are more about income potential than anything.)

In this down economy, I find it deeply concerning that we are asking already-salary-beleaguered developers to relinquish even more of their income.

In lieu of requiring those looking for employment to spend lots more money, we should just filter them better, then talk and pair with them for a little bit of time. It is agile, after all, where we value face-to-face communication and not so much written documentation.

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